Companies are being pressured to take stands on all kinds of hot button issues, including the latest war between Israel and the terror organization, Hamas.
Most of this pressure is internal. In the 2010s, corporate activism shifted from being led by consumer action to being led by employee demands. Increasingly diverse representation in the executive suite, empowered high value employees and a liberal/progressive lean in popular media made it easy for companies to take all kinds of activist stands.
While progressives might be good at being loud on social media, conservatives seem to be better on the ground. In 2023 alone they responded with two highly effective conservative boycott movements (Target and Bud Light) that have become object lessons for corporate American activism. There are more of these to come.
As such, the corporate calculus is shifting, and not everyone is ready for this change.
But this article isn’t about whether companies should take a major stand on the Israel-Hamas conflict, or even what that stand should be. Rather, this is about how companies can help foster dialogue among employees and use this as a moment to grow meaningful and authentic connections between teammates. They can accomplish this by being Friend Forward.
I spend a lot of time researching and working on the Future of Work. To understand where I’m coming from, consider that the workplace is the most diverse intellectual environment most people will experience nowadays. On average, Americans live near and marry others of the same faith and political orientation, and raise children with the same views. Social media algorithms tend to foster a similar bubble, and by adulthood most friends are whittled down based on those same criteria. Whatever diversity might have existed in our short academic careers is now greatly curtailed. Therefore, work is the place we’re most likely to find others who don’t immediately share our views.
At first, this may seem like a major risk to employers — no one wants additional conflict at the office.
But handling this situation right can foster more functional actual friendships among employees, rather than just respectful collegial relationships. Considering the loneliness epidemic affecting adults in America, and their clear desire for more friends, this is a win-win-win. Creating a workplace platform for actual friends can produce better connections, more employee loyalty and even better results for the bottom line. Close friendship-based teams outperform distant ones, even if there are some drawbacks in productivity.
There’s a lot to say about how to foster better employee friendships (and I’ll be sharing my insights in further articles), but ensuring those that exist can thrive in times of great political and social unrest is even more complex. Seizing this opportunity could be a powerful step in the right direction. And if you believe that external conflicts seeping into the workplace is unavoidable, it’s a great opportunity to create value from this morass.
Here are a few ways that companies can respond today to make this a learning moment that fosters cultural and economic growth. Many of these ideas are adapted from techniques in the crisis field that I think can be useful here too.
A. Empathy for Impact
Empathize with employees. Make sure everyone knows that the events are causing challenges that may extend to home and personal lives. Connect these dots directly to the workplace, and make clear that it’s understood this may affect performance or even emotional stability and focus. Ensure that everyone knows the resources that are there if they need help, and that the organization supports their mental health and wellbeing.
Critically, it’s important to not pretend that these things won’t come to the workplace, but ensure that you don’t encourage politicking. Rather, keep the focus on individual emotional needs rather than solving the crisis at hand.
B. Train on Emotional Intelligence
Train the team on some key aspects of emotional intelligence that can be really helpful here. For example:
- How to ask for consent to discuss a topic of sensitivity with someone.
- How to maintain friendships with people that have diverging viewpoints.
- How to ensure relative value systems are respected.
- How to express empathy.
Though it may seem obvious, these are things that many folks — especially Millenial and Gen Z — have little to no experience with. They most likely were not taught how to deal with divergent viewpoints on campus with respect, so unfortunately it’s up to the organization to step into the breach here.
C. Managing Expression and Persuasion
During a period of social unrest, there are two main motivations for people to proselytize:
- Expression — getting stuff off their chest, and
- Persuasion — trying to get others to see the light.
In this case, we want to first ensure that employees understand the futility of persuasion. That changing people’s minds on a topic is noble but highly unlikely and therefore not a good use of time at work (or perhaps anywhere). The idea of being able to be friends with someone who has diverging viewpoints can be a guiding principle here.
When it comes to expression, the guardrails here can be more complex but in general it’s about helping individuals understand that they aren’t going to be able to say whatever they want in a consequence-free fashion. Some role-playing and thought examples can be super instructive.
D. Redirect Energy
In concert with better infrastructure and training around emotional intelligence and empathy, a Friend Forward organization can use this moment to redirect energy — and there’s a lot of it going around. It’s a perfect time to do some fun activities with teams that are not focused on activism around the current issue. They could be targeted at social good on an unrelated topic, or just something with an expressive, engaging and interesting orientation. Just like with a child or dog, a lot of kinetic energy needs a place to go, and if you can make it constructive you can improve the results.
At the same time as we’re helping employees be better friends and colleagues, we’re also reinforcing the idea that the workplace doesn’t need to have a perfect values match with an employee to be successful. This will help folks understand the importance of values as a continuum rather than a fixed condition, and that the crucial weight is on empathy, support and “showing up,” as with all friendships.
In every risk and threat, there’s always an opportunity for the workplace and individuals to grow, develop new and better connections, and to find a way to thrive. A Friend Forward workplace leverages these moments to deepen and grow. This is a great chance to help employees connect more deeply and improve their lives, even as the situation remains stressful all around.
A Note On Techniques and Tools
There are several existing tools and techniques that can be used in each of these steps or for each of these training elements. I’ll cover more of these in future posts.